Z To A: Jesus’ Son (1999)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Jesus’ Son follows a young man’s journey and quest for love in the freewheeling ’70s. The film’s hero, a rumpled, hapless young man in his twenties, “Fuck Head” (Billy Crudup), bounces through his days with his dreams and hallucinations blurring and merging into reality. The shaky center of his universe is his beloved on-again, off-again girlfriend Michelle (Samantha Morton).

Wandering from one misadventure to another, Fuck Head is propelled through his chaotic life by a heartfelt desire to help those around him but fails miserably. As he drifts from the fields of Iowa to fast-paced Chicago to sunny Phoenix, he starts to discover the small rewards of sobriety and reaches the state of grace and fulfillment he had unknowingly been searching for.

– From DVD Production Notes

On the heels of Jess + Moss, Jesus’ Son seems to be another beautiful film no one has heard of. It’s aesthetically perfect in a strange, off-kilter way. It’s also a thoughtful piece of work. Within each scene there are beats, moments and details that are measured and carefully thought out.

I credit this to director Alison Maclean. The thing she’s best known for is directing Natalie Imbruglia’s video for “Torn.” I find that kind of sad. Why hasn’t this woman made more films?

Son is based on a series of short stories by Denis Johnson and plays out in titled vignettes (“Dundun,” “Work,” “Holiday”). Its connecting thread is Fuck Head’s descent and dependence on drugs, but Son isn’t the typical drug narrative. In fact, I saw the film as part of a research and writing project about drugs on film. Out of the 20+ films I watched Son stood out because it was more of a character study. It wasn’t as concerned with degradation and redemption.

What takes center stage is Fuck Head and the people he knows. There are a few recognizable faces who were unknown at the time, which makes watching it all the more interesting.

Not many people know what Michael Shannon looked like in the '90s.

For example, not many people know what Michael Shannon looked like in the ’90s.

Every character has their moment- some more than others- but Fuck Head’s misadventures with Georgie (Jack Black) are my personal favorite, especially when Georgie proves to be some sort of knife genius. A few of these scenes are available online, and definitely worth a look. After all, nothing beats baby rabbits and hallucinogenic graveyards.

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Fuck Head’s stories are alternately poignant, funny or tragic, and all of them are anchored by Billy Crudup’s performance. He is so subtle and effective as Fuck Head that I immediately began thinking, “What the hell happened to Billy Crudup?” (It turns out that he prefers the stage.) The character is incredibly flawed by somehow likeable. When I first saw the film I theorized that he was one of Michael Kelso‘s long-lost brothers. I’m sticking with that theory. It is 100% valid when you look into it.

However, watching Son was different this time around. It had been a long time and and proved to be more personal. When two characters overdosed it was harder to watch. The same thing happened to two of my high school classmates. The song “Farther Along” features heavily on the soundtrack, which reminds me of Deadwood and my cousin Peter, who died in 2011.

I also noticed- and enjoyed- the film’s structure for what it was. The more I thought about it, the more it was linked to previous entries in this series. The narration reminds me of Harry Lockhart’s explanations and asides in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). The order of events follow how an individual chooses to remember them, which recalls the Kill Bill series (2003 – 2004) and the narrative structure of La Vie En Rose (2007). In short, Son is the kind of film I was destined to love, mainly because the sequence of events isn’t predictable and the narrative is reliant on subjective memory.

I can’t say I’m surprised with how unknown this film has been has been since its release. It’s comprised of stories that most people don’t take an interest in, appreciate or take pains to hear. A character like Fuck Head is the kind of guy you meet at a party and assume he doesn’t have a lot to offer, but his history may surprise you. He relates events in his life without a trace of judgment or bitterness, and you get the sense that he wouldn’t take it personally if you didn’t care to listen.

I guess that’s what makes Son meaningful for me. It’s something that we wouldn’t be compelled to seek out. The film is like someone whispering his secrets into the ground. Fortunately (at least for me), I was able to hear them.

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3 thoughts on “Z To A: Jesus’ Son (1999)

  1. Pingback: Z To A: Ceremony (2010) | The Holy Shrine

  2. Pingback: End Of The Year Almanac #2: The Most Interesting Male Performers Of 2016 | The Holy Shrine

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